Cablegate: Thailand: Ambassador Engages Privy Council Chair

DE RUEHBK #0192/01 0250759
P 250759Z JAN 10

Monday, 25 January 2010, 07:59
EO 12958 DECL: 01/25/2030
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Classified By: Ambassador Eric G. John, reason 1.4 (b,d)
1. (S) Summary: Ambassador paid a series of New Year’s-related calls on influential Thai figures, including Privy Council Chair GEN Prem, Privy Council member ACM Siddhi, and former PM Anand, to discuss the year ahead. Abhisit’s performance, issues related to the royal family, and challenges posed by Thaksin/Hun Sen emerged as the primary themes. Prem offered a more positive assessment of Abhisit’s performance than Siddhi, who criticized Abhisit for a lack of resolve and the absence of an effective team to carry out his policies. All three focused on the challenge posed by Thaksin to the government and, indirectly, to the monarchy; Anand attributed part of the King’s poor health to Thaksin, and both Prem and Siddhi were upset about Thaksin’s alliance of convenience with Cambodian leader Hun Sen. All three had quite negative comments about Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. While asserting that the Crown Prince will become King, both Siddhi and Anand implied the country would be better off if other arrangements could be made. Siddhi expressed preference for Princess Sirindhorn; Anand suggested only the King would be in a position to change succession, and acknowledged a low likelihood of that happening.
2. (S) Comment: On the two most difficult and sensitive issues of the day in Thailand -- Thaksin and the monarchy -- the Thai elite appear as unsure about the future as any other sector of society. The stakes are significant for all sides, and resolution of the political divide and royal succession could still be far over the horizon. Elite concerns about Abhisit in office appear to reflect less on his performance than on general worries about the ultimate resolution of issues. End Summary and Comment.
Mixed Views on Abhisit’s performance
3. (C) Privy Councilor Chair GEN Prem shared his assessments of PM Abhisit, the Crown Prince’s relationship with Thaksin, and difficulties dealing with Cambodia/Hun Sen with Ambassador over lunch January 13. Regarding Abhisit, Prem referenced widespread criticism that the PM was too young and not strong enough to be an effective leader in trying times. However, Prem felt that Abhisit had proved in 2009 that he was up to the challenge of doing what was necessary to run a fractious coalition government, no easy task. In addition, there were no other politicians available who were more principled and had more integrity than Abhisit, and Thailand needed such a leader at this point. Prem expressed hope that Thais and foreigners alike would be more patient with Abhisit, who he believed was the right man to serve as premier.
4. (C) Fellow Privy Councilor ACM Siddhi, hosting Ambassador at his home January 11, was more critical of Abhisit than Prem. Siddhi said that he had told Abhisit’s father, his own long-time personal physician, that his son needed to be more decisive and “make more friends” in 2010. Abhisit spent too much time at the podium and not enough time assembling an effective team to which he could delegate action and rely on for well-thought out policy initiatives, in Siddhi’s view. Abhisit also needed to get out to engage the grassroots, one of Thaksin’s strengths. On Siddhi’s wish list: Abhisit pushing through a permanent appointment for Acting Police Chief Pratheep; using his power over wayward coalition parties by threatening parliamentary dissolution if they did not get in line; and telling the Army to take action to dismiss renegade MGEN Khattiya, even if Defense Minister Prawit refused to sign a dismissal order.
Political Year Ahead
5. (C) While GEN Prem expressed moderate concern about the potential for violence and political discord in early 2010, he felt the situation was no worse than six months ago. Prem asked about U.S. laws regarding demonstrations and avoiding
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excessive disruptions of government functions and daily lives of citizens; Ambassador explained the U.S. system of permits for protests which allowed for free speech but not free access everywhere. Ambassador shared U.S. frustration about decisions negatively affecting economic/investment climate, such as Ma Tha Phut and the digital lottery cancellation; the uneven application of the rule of law, breaches of contract, and regulatory shifts affected the investment climate more negatively at this point than political turmoil.
6. (C) ACM Siddhi expressed more concerns than Prem about the security situation in 2010, suggesting that Army Commander Anupong’s inability to control wayward red-affiliated MGEN Khattiya’s M-79 attacks on yellow-shirt rallies and trips to see Thaksin overseas was not a good harbinger (note: three days later, someone attacked Anupong’s office at night with an M-79, with Khattiya widely seen as the likely suspect, see reftel. End note). Siddhi said he had higher hopes for deputy Commander Prayuth, widely expected to replace Anupong in October and seen as particularly close to the Queen. Siddhi claimed Prem had sent a signal of his displeasure with Anupong by snubbing him during a group call at Prem’s residence to pass birthday greetings, not stopping to talk to Anupong personally as he did with other key military commanders.
Royal Family: King, Crown Prince, Entourages
7. (S) Regarding King Bhumibol’s health, Prem indicated that the King was exercising 30 minutes a day on a stationary bicycle at Siriraj Hospital and passing a medicine ball with a physical therapist to build up strength and regain weight. Prem acknowledged that he had not seen the King since the hospitalization, but that the Queen and Princess Sirindhorn saw the King daily. When Ambassador asked about the Crown Prince’s involvement, Prem repeated: the Queen and Sirindhorn visit him daily.
8. (S) Prem acknowledged Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn probably maintained some sort of relationship with fugitive former PM Thaksin, “seeing him from time to time.” Prem, clearly no fan of either man, cautioned that Thaksin ran the risk of self-delusion if he thought that the Crown Prince would act as his friend/supporter in the future merely because of Thaksin’s monetary support; “he does not enjoy that sort of relationship.” When Ambassador asked where the Crown Prince was currently, in Thailand or Europe, Prem replied dismissively: “You know his social life, how he is.” (Note: a presumed reference to Vajiralongkorn’s preference to spend time based out of Munich with his main mistress, rather than in Thailand with his wife and son).
9. (S) ACM Siddhi, in a similar vein, noted that the Crown Prince frequently slipped away from Thailand, and that information about his air hostess mistresses was widely available on websites; he lamented how his former aide, now Thai Ambassador to Germany, was forced to leave Berlin for Munich often to receive Vajiralongkorn. Siddhi raised Thaksin’s controversial November Times On-line interview, which Siddhi claimed cast the King in a bad light and attempted to praise the Crown Prince as broad-minded and educated abroad, hinting that Vajiralongkorn would be ready to welcome Thaksin back to Thailand once he became King.
10. (S) Ambassador mentioned to Siddhi the Crown Prince’s more engaging approach in the early December King’s Birthday reception with Ambassadors, shaking each envoy’s hand and appearing more at ease than in the 2008 reception. Siddhi stated that succession would be a difficult transition time for Thailand. According to Palace Law, the Crown Prince would succeed his father, but added after a pause, almost hopefully: “if the Crown Prince were to die, anything could happen, and maybe Prathep (Sirindhorn) could succeed.”
11. (S) Ambassador similarly raised the Crown Prince’s more confident demeanor with former PM Anand in late December, seeking Anand’s assessment of the dynamics in play as succession inevitably drew nearer. Anand’s response was
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similar to Siddhi’s, but more detailed and blunt. Anand said that he had always believed that the Crown Prince would succeed his father, according to law. However, there could be complicating factors -- if Vajiralongkohn proved unable to stay out of politics, or avoid embarrassing financial transactions. After a pause, Anand added that the consensus view among many Thai was that the Crown Prince could not stop either, nor would he be able, at age 57, to rectify his behavior. After another pause, Anand added that someone really should raise the matter with the King, before adding with regret that there really was no one who could raise such a delicate topic (note: implied was the need for an alternative to Vajiralongkorn).
12. (S) ACM Siddhi expressed his personal concern about the declining image of the royal family in Thailand, noting that something as simple as excessive motorcade-related traffic jams caused by minor royals was an unnecessary but enduring irritant. Personal Private Secretary Arsa Sarasin had raised this with the King about eight years ago, according to Siddhi, and the King had agreed, authorizing Arsa to talk to royal family members and to set up new rules limiting entourages and occasions when traffic would be stopped. Nothing had changed; Siddhi noted that he had been caught up in traffic for 45 minutes the previous week returning for a meeting with the Chinese Ambassador, due to a royal motorcade. Stories that the Crown Prince now ordered second story windows closed as his motorcade passed achieved nothing but additional popular resentment, Siddhi added sorrowfully.
Thaksin and Hun Sen
13. (C) Thaksin clearly remained on the mind of all three “establishment” figures. Former PM Anand asserted that the King’s health and mood remained poor “primarily because of Thaksin” and the challenge Thaksin posed to the stability of the country. GEN Prem asked Ambassador what the U.S. would do in the situation Thailand found itself, with a neighboring country appointing as an adviser a former leader bent on bringing down the government. Ambassador replied that while former U.S. Presidents did occasionally give paid speeches overseas, they would never work for another government; he advised Prem and Thai officials to take the high road in their public comments about Cambodia, and not to be drawn into a tit for tat with Thaksin and Hun Sen. (Note: Prem seemed to be musing out loud, but he clearly was focused on what he perceived as a threat from Thaksin and Hun Sen’s facilitation of Thaksin’s efforts).
14. (C) ACM Siddhi said that PM Abhisit had called him on his 90th birthday recently and had indicated that now that Thailand was no longer ASEAN Chair, Abhisit would feel less constrained in responding to Hun Sen’s bullying rhetoric more freely. Siddhi expressed concern that in addition to Cambodia and Brunei, clearly in Thaksin’s camp due to his close personal ties with Hun Sen and the Brunei Sultan, Laos and Vietnam might back Hun Sen in the ongoing Thai-Cambodia diplomatic spat.
15. (C) ACM Siddhi attacked Thaksin as trying to use money, red-shirt protests, and Hun Sen to “destroy our country,” but he predicted Thaksin would not succeed. Thaksin never had tried to negotiate, Siddhi alleged, but only issued demands; had he been willing to come back and spend a nominal time in jail for his conviction, Thaksin likely would have been quickly pardoned/released as a former PM. Now Thaksin would try to create chaos, possibly sparking the use of force. While Siddhi expected Thaksin to lose the February 26 decision on his 76 billion baht ($2.3 billion) in frozen assets, he claimed his sources indicated Thaksin still had 240 billion baht ($7.3 billion) overseas. Rather than live overseas quietly, Thaksin had decided to fight, funding websites attacking the King and Queen to stir up anti-monarchy views. JOHN

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